HL Deb 08 March 1978 vol 389 cc789-841

2.54 p.m.

Lord BOYD-CARPENTER rose to call attention to the importance of preserving and fostering variety and opportunities for parental choice and for meeting the wishes of local residents in the organisation of secondary education, with particular reference to direct grant and grammar schools; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper and so to initiate this short debate, I hope that your Lordships will allow me to say how delighted I am at the number of noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have indicated their wish to take part in this debate. For that reason I shall curtail my own remarks as much as I can, as I am very conscious of the fact that we have only two and a half hours to debate this matter and that it is, of course, a matter of major importance to the debate that the noble Lord the Minister of State should have the fullest possible opportunity to reply.

My Lords, this debate like, indeed, most of us perhaps, has two parents. One is the recent indication given by the Secretary of State for Education and Science that her earlier and more generous intentions to come forward with provisions for strengthening parental choice in education now appear unlikely to be implemented. The second parent, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, will already have apprehended, is the Answer he gave to a starred Question of mine on 15th November. I refer noble Lords to the Official Report for 15th November, cols. 503 to 509. In that Question I asked the Government, through the noble Lord, to include the question of selection in the consultations with local authorities which, in a Statement in July, the Government had announced that they were proposing to undertake on the basis of a Green Paper with education authorities, teachers, parents and others on the future of education. I hope that the noble Lord will not think me discourteous if I say that he gave me what I would describe as a somewhat doctrinaire reply. He took the line that the Government's policy was settled and he was not prepared even to consult local authorities on this issue.

I appreciate, as I think do all noble Lords, the Government's policy on selection. I personally regard it as a grave mistake, but I equally appreciate, and I think that the House will, that there is neither time nor opportunity in the course of a short debate to debate that great issue as fully as it should be debated. Therefore, for the purposes of this debate I do not propose—I do not know whether my noble friends will—to challenge the generality of the Government's policy.

Indeed, the Government can pride themselves that their policy has now been carried a very long way. The official figures given by the Department of Education and Science indicated that, whereas 10 years ago only 14 per cent. of secondary school children were in comprehensive schools, at the beginning of last year that figure had risen to 80 per cent. The Government, therefore, for better or for worse have achieved a large measure of the implementation of their policy and they must, in due course, be answerable for that.

My plea, which I hope that the House will feel is more appropriate to a short debate, is for flexibility, understanding and moderation in the application of this policy in particular circumstances. I am particularly asking the Government to recognise two matters. First, that local circumstances and local needs vary from area to area in this country and it is wrong to assume that a system universally imposed throughout the country will meet the needs of all areas as well as it could. Secondly, I ask them to recognise that, whereas on the one hand I accept at once there are many areas of the country where the Government's policy is popular and accepted, there are, on the other hand, areas where it is thought to be profoundly wrong and its application is deeply resented.

The plea that I am making to the Government this afternoon is that they be a little understanding of this situation and not seek to impose island uniformity in a matter of this sort throughout the country and against a hurried timetable. Indeed, on the contrary, I ask them to be prepared to be helpful and moderate in the application of this policy in particular cases where there are circumstances and local wishes which, I suggest, they ought to take into account. That is what I want to urge on the Government as forcefully as I can this afternoon.

None the less, I should like to make one general comment which follows my acknowledgement that the Government's policy has gone a long way towards implementation. It has had one rather curious effect. As a result of the application of this policy to the direct grant schools, which are mentioned in my Motion, and its application now to the controlled or maintained selective grammar schools, the present Secretary of State for Education and Science will go down in history as one of the great educational innovators of all time. On any calculation she will be responsible for the founding of more independent fee-paying schools than any educational administrator since His late Majesty, King Edward VI.

Whether that was the intention of her policy I do not know. It is a fact that to comfortably-off parents with children of average capacity the result is probably agreeable. They are given a wider choice of fee-paying schools, perhaps nearer to their homes. But the House will appreciate that the feelings of parents of modest means with gifted children may be very different indeed. When the Minister replies perhaps he would tell us, first, whether this was the intention of the policy.

There is a principle of law that a sane man expects the natural consequences of his acts. Under the Construction of Statutes provisions, which rather charmingly say that for the purposes of construing a Statute man embraces woman, presumably the same principle applies to a sane woman. Was this, to many of us, inevitable consequence of the policy foreseen and intended? If not, what do the Government intend to do about it?

By way of illustration of my argument, I shall take a certain amount of material from the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames. I do so not because I am in any position of authorisation to speak for that borough; that is done in another place by the very able Member of the House of Commons who now sits for that Royal Borough. Although I still have the honour of having a connection therewith as High Steward, I speak simply on my own account. However, as I think are the hopes and practice of this House, I find it convenient to rely on matters about which I have some knowledge—some actual practical experience.

As some noble Lords know, I was a Member of Parliament for that ancient Royal Borough for 27 years, so naturally I have acquired a certain knowledge of the educational system therein. Let us take, first, the example of the application of the direct grant policy. There is a school called Kingston Grammar School, although it is somewhat misleadingly named because it was a direct grant school. It is rather curiously organised because its governing body was subject to the local authority—to the local council—as trustees of the charity. That school has now gone independent and as a result it is full and prospering; it is maintaining high standards and selection.

However, there is the difference that selection is now not only—though it is partly—on the intellectual ability of those who apply for entry but it is also limited by the length of the parents' purses. This does and must mean that a number of bright boys of humble homes—who for centuries would have been able to go to this school—are now, as the direct result of the implementation of the Government's policy, debarred from so doing.

However, the story does not stop there. In the same Royal Borough there is an absolutely first-class maintained and controlled selective grammar school—Tiffin Boys School. I hope that I shall not be charged with the terrible offence in these days of élitism if I draw attention to the fact that its pupils normally figure in the top half-dozen successful scholarship winners at Oxford and Cambridge. It is a school of that quality, and that fact illustrates it. It has been indicated that if the Government persist in applying the 1976 Act in this area this school, too, will go independent. Its high standing and high reputation will undoubtedly secure that it does so successfully, and the identical consequences will follow to those which have followed in connection with Kingston Grammar School; that is, it will flourish and maintain high educational standards, but, once again, the children of poorer homes will be debarred from an opportunity to go there.

Those are important questions relating to this area. I can at least claim to know the area. As I am no longer dependent on its votes, I can say, without appearing to be in any degree servile, that it is an area of very high intellectual quality, where a large number of the population are journalists, civil servants and aircraft engineers at the great factory that has built the best military aircraft in this country from the Hurricane to the Harrier. There is a high intellectual level and an intense concern with education. When I represented this borough in another place a very large proportion of the queries with which I had to deal related to education. This reflected the intense interest.

As a consequence, ever since the comprehensive issue was raised it has been an issue of great local interest. Indeed, a very active pressure group was instituted in favour of proceeding to comprehensive education. None the less, at every Election—both Parliamentary and local—during the 15 years or so that this has been an issue, the Party which stood for maintaining the selective system has been successful. That seems to me to be very strong evidence of local wishes, whether expressed by parents, electors or ratepayers.

This afternoon I base a good deal of my argument on the fact that these are the wishes of those who live in that borough. If the noble Lord doubts that, I throw a challenge to him: why does he not hold a referendum? We hold referenda now on all sorts of issues. We hold referenda on whether we should disrupt the constitutional working of the United Kingdom and such matters. Why not hold a referendum on a local issue of this kind, for which, indeed, there is a precedent in the much more trivial matter of Sunday cinemas some years ago, when, as the House may recall, a referendum had to be held? Let us at least acknowledge that local wishes have a right to have attention paid to them.

Indeed, this goes a little further. Education is a locally administered service. What is the justification for involving local authorities in the administration of education, for still placing a substantial proportion of the cost of education on the rates, if the wishes of locally elected people and of their electors are simply to be ignored by central Government? I say to the Minister that he is putting the system under great strain; just as to use the force of law—to use the 1976 Act—to impose upon an elected body a duty to do what it and its electors regard to be wrong and retrograde, is to strain the machinery of law.

Noble Lords opposite have frequently warned my noble friends—with respect, rightly—of the dangers of using legislation in industrial matters if the legislation is carried to the point where people feel outraged by the application of the law. This does the law no good. It is a warning that I have heard from the Dispatch Box and it contains an element of justification. I should like to repeat it to the Minister. Is it right to use legislation of this kind to impose a system on an elected local body which it thinks wrong, which its electors think wrong and have consistently resisted for 15 years? It even goes a little further. I trust that the noble Lord will not feel that I am being in any sense polemical or partisan if I take this one stage further. If this were a newly-elected Government, supported by a large majority in another place and in the country, there would then be a strong case for saying that, however misguided their views, they must prevail.

No noble Lord would argue the position today. The present Administration have no majority in another place. After Ilford they patently have no majority in the country. They are not so much a lame duck Administration; given the many troubles they are in, they may well be described as a lame centipede. How long they will be there depends, I suppose, really on noble Lords on that Bench, but ultimately on the operation of the Quinquennial Act.

Is it not wrong for such an Administration to seek to override local wishes in this way? I am not arguing this as a matter of law, although the Statute, I believe, like so much modern legislation, is highly ambiguous. I am putting it to the House as part of the argument so often put in this House that we should endeavour, in matters of this kind, to operate by consensus; that one Party should not press its advantage to such extremes that another Party, on coming to power, is bound almost automatically to reverse it. If there ever were a subject to which that doctrine is relevant, it is surely the subject of education.

The ordinary child in this country, if he goes through the full schools course from five to, I am glad to say in many cases now, 18, will be at school through probably two or three Administrations, if not more. If each Administration are to be driven radically to alter the system to comply with their no doubt perfectly genuine political views, the education of children will be disrupted and inconvenienced and the whole system will be less good than it should be.


My Lords, would the noble Lord let me ask this question: Is he seriously suggesting that, in the event, which is possible but in no way certain, of a change of Government, the incoming Government would change the system of education for something over 3 million out of something under 4 million children? It would be quite impossible.


My Lords, the noble Lord says that it would be quite impossible. I would say in words once heard from the Liberal Benches in another place, "Wait and see." What I am saying to the noble Lord, and his intervention suggests that I ought to say it again because he does not appear to have apprehended it, is that it is wrong, in strongly felt matters of this sort, for the Government to press to a 100 per cent. conclusion in the closing months of this Parliament an advantage which has already given them 80 per cent. implementation of their policies. That is wrong, and it would produce just the sort of reaction which his intervention relates to, and which I would regret as much as he. That is indeed the point.

I therefore ask the noble Lord to consider moderation. Is there not a considerable advantage in retaining some variety of system so as to be able to compare the results; so that you can see in practice, whatever anyone's theory, whether one system works better than the other? This is an advantage which you forfeit if you impose a universal system without exceptions. Of course it is not sought completely to impose it without exceptions. There is an exception made, to which my Motion refers, for ability in music and dancing. These are agreeable occupations and, indeed, as the Minister for the Arts will agree, the English ballet is probably the best in the world. But are these really the most important subjects in the world? Is proficiency in music and dancing self-evidently more important for our national future than proficiency in mathematics and science, so that in order to maintain a high standard in one you maintain selection but you must discard it in the other? I think that the noble Lord will see that the logic of his argument is very much weakened by the making of that exception.

Moreover, he is going against the experience of much of the rest of the world. In Russia, new selective schools for young people of high academic attainment are being opened. Within the last 48 hours, the Land Government in North Rhine/Westphalia, which was proposing a measure very similar to the Government's 1976 Education Act for turning the three types of school into comprehensives, has been forced to withdraw it. It is not merely that a system of selection is cherished in certain areas. It is also that it is not self-evident that it is wrong. It is not self-evident that the only acceptable system is one based on comprehensives. This is confirmed by foreign practice and indeed by the exceptions, to which I have referred, which the Government have made.

I hope that the noble Lord is in a more tolerant and flexible mood today than he was on 15th November. I hope that the Government will be prepared to go just a little bit slow on this. There is something rather suspicious in their emphasis that changes must be made by 1979. What is the significance of 1979? Is it perhaps that five years from October 1974 expire in October 1979? Why is there a need for this haste? It must leave a suspicion at least that there is some political motive.

I suggest to the noble Lord that the Government should play it a little more gently and with more understanding of individual needs, and that they should play it slower. You will therefore have much more chance of creating a policy which will last, which will not be reversed by a successor Government, and which will carry with it the goodwill of all concerned. I hope that the noble Lord will listen to this plea, and I hope, in the splendid words which Bernard Shaw puts into King Magnus's mouth in his wonderful play The Apple Cart, that the noble Lord will accept the need for the evolutionary appetite rather than the day's gluttony. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, at this stage I do not know whether to offer the customary thanks to the noble Lord for putting this subject before us this afternoon. I fear that I shall not know until the end of this debate, because it seems to me that if we spend our time going back over the same old arguments on both sides, that we have exhaustively discussed and which are no longer really relevent, we shall have wasted our time. If, on the other hand, we can talk more about what positive ways forward we can find out of the problems which bedevil all secondary schools, and all secondary schools all over the developed world as it is, then this debate will have been worthwhile.

I do not intend to follow the noble Lord in his examination of the situation in Kingston-upon-Thames, partly because I am not so great an expert as he is on that subject, although I know a little about it, and partly because this is a short debate and I want time not only to hear the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, who it is always a pleasure to hear on this subject, but I also wish to hear the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. I wish to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, how far Conservative policy agrees with what his noble friend has just said. I hope we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, a reply to the devastating exposé of Conservative educational policy by Dr. John Rae, of Westminster School, in The Times yesterday. In fact, I think we shall have a most interesting speech from the noble Lord.

At the moment we are bedevilled by two stereotyped points of view. The one looks back to the time when there were schools all of which knew what they were doing: good grammar schools, good secondary modern schools, and good technical schools; which turned out people for industry. Admittedly, a few people got in the wrong place but on the whole they worked very well; they produced very good education. Now, at a single stroke of the political hammer, or whip, the schools have all been taken over by long-haired Communists who have completely destroyed the standards and the education that exists there. This, as we all know, is a caricature. It is a caricature because any of us who remember the education slums that a great many of those secondary modern schools were, many more of them and much worse than any except a handful of comprehensive schools in the inner city areas, will know that, whatever happens, we must not go back there again and that we have made enormous progress in education.

But equally I think that we are bedevilled by another stereotype, and that is the stereotype who says, "Comprehensive schools are the answer, not only to the educational but to the social problems of our time. All we need now is to go on to make them more and ever more comprehensive with more and more mixed ability teaching, in fact totally mixed ability teaching, and if we can possibly bring ourselves to do it, abolish the independent schools so that we have a completely comprehensive system, and then everything will be extremely good". That, too, of course, is absolute nonsense.

I am entirely in favour of seeing much more mixed ability teaching in the right places, in the right ways and with the right resources. After all, the ideal of the grammar school and of the comprehensive is the same in this area; in the sixth forms of both what is needed is pupils working independently with sufficient resources, at their own speed and at their own level. That is what is done in the best sixth forms of public schools and what is done in the best sixth forms of grammar and comprehensive schools, and to a certain extent that is what mixed ability teaching is. Of course there is bad mixed ability teaching; there is wrong mixed ability teaching in the wrong way and with the wrong resources, but nevertheless this would be an improvement.

But the main point is not that we now need a great deal more comprehensivisation, so to speak. What we must now do, having got a comprehensive system, is to find our way through to more improved schools which will give more satisfaction to parents. In so far as parental choice is concerned, there never has been much and there is not space for very much. There has only ever been parental choice for those able to pay for it. Even in the old days of the 11-plus and selection it was not parental choice but whether one passed an exam, and not many who passed the 11-plus chose to go to secondary modern schools. There were a few exceptions, but not many. If that had not been the case one might have said there was a certain amount of parental choice.

Parental choice is always limited because there are only a given number of schools—there is more choice with smaller schools, and I am entirely in favour of that—and therefore, with only a certain number of schools, there is limited choice, and one kind of choice destroys another. For example, one of the reasons why there is a limited choice of schools for people in big cities today is that there is already one kind of choice because of the quite large number of sectarian schools—Roman Catholic or Jewish schools. To a certain extent that limits choice. If we go on in a multiracial State to have even more sectarian schools of one kind or another that will give one kind of choice, but it will mean a limitation on another kind of choice.

This question of parental choice is, I believe, nearly impossible to overcome. But there is something we can do—I believe it is the way forward—and that is to make schools, neighbourhood schools, more responsive to the neighbourhood. By all means let us make do with the schools we have and give more control—there are various way so doing that—but I know there is one major problem, and that is the problem of the deprived neighbourhood school in the deprived neighbourhood, with a shortage of middle-class parents and resources. But that problem will not be solved by pretending it is not there; it is there in any circumstances. With proper neighbourhood schools we can identify the problem and put in the resources where they are needed, and so work on the problem in the right place, which is not by jigging about with the education system for social ends—which I do not think works even if it were desirable—but by tackling the problem of the deprivation of the area itself, which is the only way of tackling it.

Finally, in putting forward the proposition that we must concentrate on more responsibility on the part of schools to the parents and the neighbourhood, I have two or three suggestions to make about the way I see this moving forward. They are not in themselves—although parts of them are—Liberal Party policy, and I admit straightaway that not all of them have even been fully worked out, but I believe this is the way we must go forward. To begin with, we must go forward by cutting out much of the bureaucracy in the education system. We lose a lot of immediate control and responsiveness by the present system and increase the costs. I should like to see neighbourhood schools in the community serving the community and being responsive to the community. I believe we should give much less power to local education authorities and much more power to headmasters. Certainly, those headmasters should be governed, first of all by five-year contracts—as has been suggested by members of various political Parties—and they should be governed very much by local control, which can be started by the adoption as soon as possible of the recommendations of the Taylor Committee.

With that kind of situation, it is my belief that we might find a way of improving the standards of our education and schools—making them more acceptable and more responsive to the wishes of parents and probably helping (though this is an adjunct, and I repeat I do not believe in re-jigging education in order to affect society as such) and at the same time possibly building up our small communities in a way that is badly needed in this increasingly impersonal age. Those are merely a few suggestions which I put before your Lordships. I very much hope that in the course of this debate we shall hear many more and better positive suggestions and fewer returns to the old wrangles.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, we have my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter to thank today for enabling us to ask a simple question: what do parents want for their children's education? I suppose parents who really care want above everything else that the schools should bring out the different abilities of their children to the full. I admit I do not think that people, when they talk about it, would put it like that—they would probably put it in rather more homely phrases—but when they talk about these things I am sure their overriding concern will always be for what is best for the individual child, and surely that is right, and not only for family reasons.

It is fair to say that, since the war, slowly but with increasing clarity in recent years, people have come to realise that for this country the world has indeed changed. No longer are we the centre of a great Empire with immense trading advantages. We are alone and we have to face the bitter winds of economic reality. In their hearts, parents understand this. After all, the parents of today have been growing up or living through the period of change. But there is sufficient evidence—I do not think noble Lords will disagree with me when I say this—to show that parents still believe that a good education will enable their children to make their way in the world and, some will add, to do their bit for their country.

How has the education service responded to the faith which is placed in it? There is no question but that there are increased opportunities for pupils. At last more children are going to school before the age of five. Whatever problems it may have brought with it, the raising of the school-leaving age undoubtedly has improved examination opportunities. Let us also recognise the job which the teaching profession, over the last 15 to 20 years, has been doing at a time of sharply increasing numbers and very full classes in order to widen the curriculum for children of all abilities.

What is it, then, which prompted the Prime Minister 18 months ago in a speech which he gave at Oxford to question the direction in which education is going and to admit that industry complains of the grounding which some of its recruits receive? The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, will be delighted to hear that the answer was given by Dr. John Rae, headmaster of Westminster School, in his chairman's address to the Headmasters' Conference some six months ago. In that speech in essence Dr. Rae said that the world has changed but our education has not changed with it, that education pure rather than applied, remote from economic realities, a justification in itself, may have been appropriate for a great imperial Power but it was near to being an anachronism for a trading State fighting alone for its economic existence. However, Dr. Rae went on to admit that one fundamental change in education had occurred in recent years, that turning from our role as a world Power the British had sought consolation in the pursuit of social justice, especially in education, and this had taken the form of egalitarianism. He said: Remove selection and you would produce an educational system for the new Britain where an élite was not needed but rather a sense of community and equality. How tempting that argument must have sounded, yet how irrelevant it has all turned out to be to our real problems". In my view, how right those comments were! For in the real world of the 1960s and 1970s the truth of the matter is that the educational reformers shot the wrong fox. Instead of concentrating mainly on higher standards or different standards they pursued the quarry of selection over a period of some 20 years until at last, in the Education Act 1976, Her Majesty's Government claimed to have made the kill. No local education authority should ever select anybody for anything ever again, except for music and dancing. What an incredible solution to the economic and industrial problems which we face today! What a tragic error—incredible because if the Government genuinely want to raise standards and to put a new emphasis to standards they are less likely to succeed by insisting on the destruction of many good schools; tragic because authorities really should not and need not be coerced in this way because for many years authorities have been reorganising along comprehensive lines. They have been doing it flexibly with regard to local wishes, considerations which are very much in tune, if I may say so, with my noble friend's Motion which is before the House today.

Of course, authorities have had to proceed with considerable care because it has become increasingly apparent that if reorganisation is imposed without enough preparation there can be some fairly disastrous results: huge schools in a single block, schools which are too small to have viable teaching groups, split-site schools—just to mention three problems each of which has revealed its own particular difficulties. But because authorities have been able to avoid these ad hoc arrangements only when finance is available they have had to proceed carefully, anxious when reorganising to try to create something better and not to lose very many of their best schools.

This is where my noble friend's Motion is so particularly relevant. But, speaking rather early in the list, all I can say is that I apprehend that there may be a different view put from the other side of the House. It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, from the Government Front Bench will say that you cannot in any circumstances mix other schools with comprehensives. In the light of the most persuasive speech which my noble friend has given, I really must remind the Government Front Bench opposite that, as many local authorities can testify, experience does not bear out that assertion which I believe will come from the Government.

As my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has argued so forcefully, it runs directly counter to local authority responsibility. It might be a good thing if I reminded the House that when we last debated this topic on 10th July 1974 a Cross-Bench Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, referred to the opposing views on this subject. His speech was made just after local government reorganisation. The noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, then said this: That is why I plead for the local education authority, as reconstituted, to be given the chance of sorting out the incredibly difficult problem of harmonising the inheritance of its predecessor authority, which in most cases local authorities have to do".—[Official Report, Vol. 353, col. 628.] He went on: Let them have respect for those who did not vote for them, those parents who want to have something different from what the majority Party view in the authority may be. Most of all let there be no dictation from the Centre—either from the Government and the Department on the one hand, or from the Party political headquarters on the other". I think that that was very wise advice, but the noble Lord might just as well have saved his breath. Just over a year later the Government abolished the direct grant schools and shortly after that introduced a Bill to force all local authorities into nothing but a comprehensive system.

What has been the result? The result has been that from Bolton to Kent, from Yorkshire to my noble friend's own Kingston, in the West Country, in the Home Counties as well as in the capital, parents have gone on making it clear that they want to have some choice as to where their children are to go to school. If I may say so, I think those deeply held feelings are absolutely right. If, as the Prime Minister also said at Oxford, In today's world higher standards are demanded than were required yesterday and there are simply fewer jobs for those without skill, surely we would be well advised to put all our educational heads together, representatives of the maintained, the voluntary and the independent schools, their governors and those who are interested in them, and, in co-operation, try to plan our course for the future. The strength of our educational system lies in its diversity. Educational theory, if it is imposed from only one point of view, can often be poles apart from sensible practice.

For instance, I think it is very doubtful whether the effects of early specialisation are of advantage to young people in today's world, yet specialisation, often reaching right down the school to 14-year-olds, has been accepted theory and practice for many years. I have heard noble Lords with much more experience than I can possibly have speaking persuasively on this subject. This is something which comprehensive schools could do, and in some cases already have done, quite a lot to rectify. The emphasis on going into the social services for school-leavers and veering away from engineering or maths or applied sciences, which has certainly been a feature from time to time for school-leavers since the war, is hardly likely to meet our needs today. I venture to suggest that that is something which independent schools have been quicker off the mark to recognise.

Last year members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate expressed forthright criticism of the more disastrous attempts to impose mixed ability teaching which had been widely accepted and I rather think still is accepted by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, as being good practice. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the Inspectorate as a source of all advice any longer, not because of its lack of expertise, which expertise is of course second to none, but because it is very heavily understaffed—I believe about one-third so—and is under very great pressure. So I would say that, provided that we retain our experience of different kinds of schools and have people with different points of view, so are we more likely to keep our educational balance. Instinctively parents realise this; instinctively they distrust those who would put all our educational eggs in one basket. It is regrettable but true that distrust extends now to the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Let me give one practical example of what the Government have actually been doing. My own local authority, Suffolk, began to reorganise schools a long time ago, before Circular 1065 was issued by the late Anthony Crosland which steered authorities towards reorganisation. Since then my authority has pursued its course, not always an easy task in its more sparsely populated rural areas, until, in 1973, the education committee asked a direct grant school of very old foundation, called Woodbridge School (which happens to be only a couple of miles from my home) to establish an entirely open sixth form for all girls and boys—I repeat, all girls and boys—from the surrounding comprehensive area. Thus, a school which has served its locality for centuries was able to continue to make its contribution, financial as well as educational, to the county system. The authority was enabled to make very good use of its resources, and excellent opportunities were available to all pupils.

About six weeks ago, using her powers under the 1976 Act, the Secretary of State issued a direction forbidding this arrangement to continue. I am really at a loss to understand the motives which persuade Ministers to drive schools beyond the reach of children. As my noble friend so graphically has said, the Secretary of State has done more to found independent schools than anyone has done for over 400 years. I must declare an interest. I am chairman of the Governing Bodies Association, and of course I am not sorry to see more independent schools. But I am terribly sorry to see this done with ill will. The fact of the matter is that the Government do not want to see an independent sector, and it does not seem to me that they recognise any advantage in encouraging the maintained and independent systems to run side by side, the one benefiting from the experience of the other.

The voluntary aided schools would have done almost anything they possibly could to remain within the independent system. Many, including the denominational schools, have in fact been able successfully to do so. But when many excellent small voluntary schools found that they were to be consigned to the fate of the mini comprehensive, they felt that they would be selling their souls, and they, too, had to choose independence.

As for the direct grant schools—which the Motion of my noble friend specifically mentions, and which formed such a valuable bridge between the two sectors, and offered their teaching to children, wherever their parents lived and whoever they were—the grant aid system which made that work possible has, too, been destroyed by the Government. However, these schools have put forward a new system called assisted places, which will be a new scheme of national fee remissions simpler in form than the old direct grant system. I should like to make it crystal clear that the Conservative Party has accepted this proposal. Although priority will be given to the former direct grant schools, one of the advantages of this system, when it is introduced, should be the possibility of achieving a fairer geographical spread of these very popular schools.

My Lords, I started by asking a question. Now I should like to put another question to the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite. Do the Government believe, as a matter of principle, that parents should have a major voice in deciding how their children are to be educated? Does the right to decide how a child is to be brought up belong to the parent, or does it belong to the State? When the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, was drafting the 1944 Education Act, clearly there was going to be a tremendous post-war explosion in the school population. That is why Section 76 of that Act lays it down only as a general principle that pupils should be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents. But population trends have suddenly changed. It is now forecast that by the end of the 1980s there will be a million fewer children in our schools, and although this in itself will present some fairly formidable logistical problems, particularly for local authorities, it must give more opportunity for choice.

Last October it seemed that the Secretary of State intended to seize this opportunity. In a consultative document on school admissions Mrs. Williams stated her belief in a statutory requirement—that was the wording—that a child be admitted to the school of his parents' choice. But six weeks ago, speaking to the Society of Education Officers, the Secretary of State was reported as having suggested that "parental choice" was a misleading expression and should be replaced with" the expression of parental wishes." Perhaps the noble Lord will explain to me what the Secretary of State means, and why there is no legislation. I had understood from reading my newspapers last autumn that the Secretary of State's enthusiasm for parental rights was to be translated into a Bill for this Session. But the gracious Speech has come and gone with no hint of legislation.

The point is that the impending fall in secondary school rolls really presents a unique opportunity to give priority to parental choice, which so often stems from widely differing reasons. Invariably it has nothing to do with what is so very often suggested—whether a school is highly academic. Much more often it is found that parents go for a school because it is small or because it is large, or because it is strong in languages, or perhaps because they particularly feel that their son or daughter wants a good science department, or because a school is traditional, or experimental, or because a school is good with the backward, or with the gifted, or with the difficult—


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way in what I regard as a quiet, constructive speech. But I am worried that the word "academic" is bandied about all the time. Of course wonderful schools like Winchester, which taught the philosophy of Latin and Greek in the days when we could afford that wonderful philosophical discussion, forget that nowadays there are more youngsters than ever before in history at universities and technical colleges, studying pharmaceutical subjects and electronics. Consequently, we are moving into a system where the artifacts of modern mankind need this specific kind of training, and I would hope that the same emphasis is given to the skill of the individual as is given to the academic ability of the individual.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, for interrupting to make that point which otherwise I would have missed. How right he is that the skill in vocational training should not be missed! But how right is it also that bringing on people who perhaps do not have many brains should not be missed. I remember that the first time I passed a public examination my headmaster reported that it was a triumph for teachers and taught alike. So I have every sympathy with those who manage to make their way.

What I have been saying to your Lordships is that very often parents are looking at a school to see not only if it is a good school for the very clever, but whether it will bring on their particular child who may be a little backward. In putting these points, I want to ask the Government whether we can have an answer today as to whether people are to be allowed to assess the merits of different comprehensive schools, and to choose which will suit their son or daughter best; or is that natural impulse to be suppressed under the terms of the 1976 Act, because it would, in the Secretary of State's rather forbidding words in her consultative paper: be in conflict with the comprehensive principle"? I make no secret that we on this side of the House believe in more responsibility for parents. We have made this clear for over three years in what we have called the Parents Charter, in which we recommend amendment of Section 76, in which we express belief in parental governors, and in the desirability of schools giving information about themselves, in-chiding their examination records. I was interested to see three months ago that Mrs. Williams has in fact taken the advice offered by my noble friend Lord Elton, during the interminable debates on the Education Bill, that schools should have prospectuses; and that is certainly a step in the right direction.

I quoted the Prime Minister earlier, and in ending I do so once again. The Prime Minister said: To the teachers I would say that you must satisfy the parents and industry that what you are doing meets their requirements and the needs of our children. I should say, to be fair, that the Secretary of State has responded to this. The steady improvement in staffing standards, the allocation of funds for better induction and in-service training (which is an extension, incidentally, of the work which was started by my right honourable friend Mrs. Thatcher), and the setting up of the assessment performance unit all go to the improvement of standards. But I am afraid that Government policy is marred, and fatally marred, by the Government's disregard of what parents may actually want. The Government can protest, as I think the noble Lord will, that this charge is unfounded. All I would observe is that when Ministers insist on a blanket system of comprehensive schools imposed from the centre, people know perfectly well that this cannot coincide with parental choice.

The trouble is, I believe, that this contradiction will become increasingly irrelevant to the needs of our country. In future people will look at what schools have to offer and they will expect to choose; at the way their schools are run, and they will demand to be involved; at the diverse pattern which is still the strength of our education system, and they will claim the right for their children to benefit from it. That is the way forward, and that is the effect of my noble friend's Motion today.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, warmly for introducing this debate on education, but I wish it had been a full-dress, long debate, because that is what is needed on this subject. I want to thank him, too, for his most comprehensive Motion—one which encapsulates Tory philosophy about education. I say this because the noble Lord has mainly focused his Motion on direct grant schools, thus dwelling on a tiny minority of parents and children, most of whom are relatively privileged educationally and financially. I must say that I felt more sympathy with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who stole two of my points, one about community involvement in education and the other about parents keeping in touch with teachers throughout the school curriculum.

As for this emotive phrase "parental choice", I wonder: for whom is this parental choice to be available? For how many? Can noble Lords opposite deny that for 80 per cent. of the population there is no parental choice at this time and that there was not a lot of parental choice before? I have no wish to detract from the good work done in some direct grant schools. I spent some of the happiest days of my life in an excellent one a very long time ago. Good work is done by some of these schools, where the pupils have been selected for their academic ability and, sometimes, for social and economic reasons, too. In our country at this time, are these the children who need fostering? Are they the schools as to which there is need to preserve variety and opportunity for parental choice? Are these—this tiny minority—the schools in question? What about, as I asked, the 80 per cent. of our children who have very little choice, or no choice at all?

I should like to see more credit given where it is richly deserved: to those good comprehensive schools where the children are not selected because they are already doing well; where their results are achieved in hard circumstances; and where the conditions are such that the pupils reflect, as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said, the local community as a whole and not just the wishes of certain local residents. Because, in any debate on education when we are considering the results which have so far been achieved in comprehensive schools, we have to bear in mind that these schools, and particularly the teachers working in them, are involved in tackling some of our most intractable educational and social problems and in helping a great many disadvantaged children. At present, many of them are beginning to achieve respectable academic results. I am not going to say that our comprehensive schools are perfect, or that they do not need improvement. In a time of very great social and economic change, there are many problems where we have tried to change education; but, as I say, it is to these comprehensive schools that credit is due, and we should concentrate our support on them and not at all on the more privileged schools.

One would have thought that the arguments about the merits of comprehensive and direct grant schools, both at the educational and at the political level, would by now have been thrashed out, for I believe they have reached a point of no return. For all that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, and for all that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said, I do not believe that the Conservative Party could begin to unscramble the changes in education that there have been at this point. It would be a disaster. I sometimes cut things out from the newspapers, but I am afraid I do not date them. However, today I came across a letter from Sir Michael Clapham, who said quite clearly in The Times that the definition of an educated person had changed over these last 30 years, and that we have to have a different approach to the idea of education, particularly with regard to industry. In fact, "learning for earning" was the phrase in the letter. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, would find Sir Michael Clapham on his side; and I do not think that Sir Michael Clapham is a raging Socialist, either!

As I say, one would have thought that the arguments about direct grant schools and comprehensives would by now have been thrashed out; but, even today, as we know from the speeches that have been made, the lament of the middle classes for a resuscitation of past privilege is still heard loud and clear. I have never listened to a debate on education without hearing the word "sacrifice" being used by people who are mostly in a position to afford to make such sacrifices. There is also, today, a lot of talk, much of it uninformed, about a fall in academic standards when comparing achievements in comprehensive schools with those in grammar schools and direct grant schools. Comprehensive schools start with two handicaps, first, in areas where there are many disadvantaged groups and, secondly, in areas where there is a creaming-off of the more able children by the grammer schools which still exist. This makes comparisons in such places unfair to start with; and, when the social conditions are taken into account, such comparisons are absolutely unjust. For there is more to the comprehensive principle in education than a comparison of examination results, especially in areas where there is great poverty. However, recent educational reports continue to show better and more equal results as between grammar and comprehensive schools. I do not know, but it does not look as if either the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, or the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has read these reports or has noted them, because neither of them mentioned them.

I am not going to go in for a great many statistics, but, of the children in England and Wales who left school in 1976, 83 per cent. had gained at least one graded result in the GCE and CSE exams in comprehensive schools. In 1975, the comparable figure was only 80 per cent. It was only a small increase in 1976, but, nevertheless, it was an increase. In 1971, before the raising of the school-leaving age, only 56 per cent. of the pupils gained one grade. But, as I said, I do not like dealing in statistics because it is easy to put our own personal gloss on these figures or even to give them a personal interpretation. I must repeat that there is more to comprehensive education than examination results. Nevertheless, I must mention one other survey, an important one, by the East Sussex local education authority, comparing the 1977 results in the GCE and CSE examinations. They were comparing five grammar schools and four fully developed—and I repeat "fully developed"—comprehensive schools in the area. The results obtained were more favourable (that is, higher) in the comprehensive schools.

As has been mentioned, the recent fall in the birthrate and the effect that this will have on the school population does offer us a very great opportunity to improve our schools—all our schools, and not just the direct grant schools or the grammar schools. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, mentioned improvement for comprehensive schools; although that is where most of our children are. We may then have a chance to achieve vastly improved teaching conditions in our comprehensive schools and the only way—I have always thought this and I must repeat it finally today—in which we can bring the education of most of our children—I will not say all of them, but most of them—to the highest possible standard is in comprehensive education. It will need improving; it may need great changes; but that is the only way. Otherwise, we shall continue to have the kind of divisive society that we have at present. We shall not get an improvement in our industry and we shall not get a real feeling that we are one nation.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, I think we are indebted to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for raising this debate today. There are so many views on the subject of education that one could go on talking about it for hours and still not necessarily repeat what other people have said. But I think the debate today has been earmarked, as it were, for the very important matter of parental choice and, I would say, the influence that parents can have in schools and on schools when, as many parents do today, they take a tremendous interest in the schools to which their children go. We will not argue, because we disagree, on the subject of the destroying of the grant-aided and grammar schools. I passionately disagreed with that and I know that members of the Government are passionately on the other side; so we must agree to differ about that. But I am encouraged by the fact that I think there are opportunities in which we can still save some of the good and important opportunities which the direct grant schools have given—and, I think, could still give—if we do not have a total disappearance of these schools due to a total acceptance of comprehensive schools.

I do not dispute with the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, that there are a number of excellent comprehensive schools. Of course, there are. I do not think that the Conservative Party would dream of making very extensive alterations where those schools are successful. What we object to is the fact that every school must be comprehensive. When people talk about the fact that the direct grant schools and the grammar schools cater only for selected people who can pay to go there, they ignore the fact that thousands of children, whose parents could not afford to send them to grammar and independent schools, were able to go because of the grant aid available.

I remember a fine speech by the noble Lord, Lord James of Rusholme—during one of the debates on the Bill that the Government put through about comprehensive schools—in which he said that in all the years that he was headmaster of Manchester Grammar School, where there were some of the very finest pupils in the country, nobody but himself knew whether particular pupils were being paid for by the parents or by the State. The whole picture was one of complete equality for all the pupils and all the teaching. The question never arose of whether little John was being provided for by the State or little Andrew by his parents. What mattered was what they did, how they worked and the opportunities they took. That is why I think it is sad that that opportunity has gone and in its place, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has said, there is an increase in the independent schools where children who are going to them are going to them because their parents can pay, and children who cannot go because their parents cannot pay are going to miss this opportunity.

I must not argue this case. It is one that the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, will condemn. I am going to say that I think it is a great pity. But it was the Minister of Education who made the suggestion that there would be some alteration in the scheme and that there was to be an Act of Parliament which I think my noble friend Lord Belstead referred to. At the moment, that seems to have been done away with; at least, there does not appear to be anything in the Government's policy which will make any alteration in the present system. I think that is a great mistake.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, is right when she says that you cannot completely alter the comprehensive system. If, as I hope, we shall win the next Election we will not be able to wipe out every comprehensive school. That would be crazy. But what we can do and what I hope we do is to recreate a number of grammar schools and grant-aided schools and give special places, special opportunities and some finance to a wide range of boys and girls who, in another age, would have been able to go to such grammar schools as Manchester Grammar School. I hope that that is one of the things that we shall do. Certainly, it is in the Conservative Party's programme for education.

I should like to say a word or two about the qusetion of parental choice and opportunities which could still be available, even under the present system, if there was more flexibility in the organisation of education to day. When I was the chairman, as I was for six or eight years, of a rural area education committee—and we had, of course, a very small population—the amount of choice between secondary schools and rural primary schools was not very great. But there were some schools which were geared more towards rural life which in that particular rural area was what the children were used to. We tried to send those children who had a rural background and who wanted to continue rural life to the secondary schools that were more geared towards rural life—and it worked well. Those who wanted to go into industry or into technical education of a different kind—for, of course, agriculture is a very technical subject—we did our best to send to the schools which were able to teach more on the industrial side; and it worked.

Again, we did our best to try to meet parents' choice. I think that one of the things that could be done is to do away—and we had to do this in this area—with this rigid zoning and to say that every child must go to the zone in which it is living. It may be that in some large industrial areas it is not possible to do very much else; but there is always some opportunity on the periphery of cities, if you have not got this rigid zoning policy, to arrange for children to go to a particular school if the more rural aspect of education is wanted for them. It could apply to comprehensive schools, too.

There are comprehensive schools which are slightly different, one from another. I do not think it would be difficult to make arrangements. Certainly in cities transport is not so difficult; it is more difficult in rural areas. But transport is not impossible to organise. I have seen arrangements made to transport children to schools which suit them better than the one next door to them. It may cost more money; possibly it does. The fact remains that one is repaid in the interest and amount of response from the children and their parents.

I should like to see parents playing a much more important part in the school set-up and in the education set-up than they do today. I do not mean by that that they are not playing a part, but it could improve, it could get better. The increase in the parent-teacher associations is much to be encouraged. The increase in the school committees is another development. I do not know whether all schools have committees, but, in the area in which I worked, each school had a committee composed of some of the parents of the children as well as the teachers. It was small but it worked. It created great interest in the school. I should like to see that increased as much as possible.

I have not had experience of big comprehensive schools because where I worked, and also in Scotland, unless one goes to the big cities, one does not find the large comprehensive schools. But I still think that more parents could be members of governing bodies and have an influence in the every day working of the school.

I agree with Lord Beaumont of Whitley's remarks regarding neighbourhood schools. A much wider area is covered than by zoning, which is very restrictive. There have been many disadvantges in local government reorganisation, but one of the advantages is that the areas governed by one local educational authority are so big that there is not the problem of saying that little Johnny cannot be sent to a certain school because it is in another education authority, and therefore not being paid for by the education rate where the parents are living. In fact, the education areas are so much bigger that advantage can be taken by sending the children to schools where they would not have been able to go before because of the restricted area in which the ratepayers of any given area were actually financing education. But that is not an advantage unless parents are given a chance to say that they want their child to go to a school which is not in the zone in which they live. Possibly this is putting a strain on education authorities, but it can be done. When I think of the distances that children are taken by buses to schools in a rural area, surely it is not outside the bounds of possibility to arrange for children to go to other comprehensive schools besides the one near their homes. The local school might not be the one which gives the kind of teaching and education best suited to that particular child.

I ask the Government to take a more generous view of these arrangements and see whether we can get people to care about the child and its parents as much as they care about just having an organisation down on paper, marked off in squares on a map, which is where one has to go. I am only talking about experiences that I myself have had. I know they are limited and I do not put this forward as anything for world wide acceptance, but it has worked. Nobody could say that Newcastle Education Committee was in a rural area. For some of the small towns in Northumberland they established a country school geared to operate for about a fortnight or three weeks at a time. Children came into the rural area and learned about forestry; they went on great walks and treks over the hills and through the valleys. This was in the borders of Scotland where I live. This proved a tremendous success. It was not the Roxburgh Education Committee which did this but the Northumberland Education Committee. There are now three of those rural schools where children attend for a fortnight or three weeks away from their own environment.

I believe that something of that kind could be developed elsewhere. It may have been developed elsewhere, for I am speaking about something that I personally know about; I do not know what has happened in Devonshire, Cornwall, or, say, Berkshire. These experiments with small populations are worth trying. They make for variety and give the children more interest. What is so devastating to me in the modern education system is that, while one lays on a whole mass of different subjects, unless one attracts the children's interest they become bored. Then they smash things up; they do not take an interest; they just have to be at school because that is where they should be by law. But it is not education in the sense that we all like to think of it: something that is with us for life and that interests us at all times so that when it is finished and over we are still learning.

I should like to see the education system in this country develop in the way I have outlined. I do not think that it can be done by simply laying down the law and saying that all schools and all arrangements have to be the same. I would cater for the specially gifted and interested child, not only because they may be musical or may be ballet dancers—which I love and am all for—but because they could also be mathematicians or scientists and might have all the different interests which are vital today. One cannot do that unless the children are attracted; and I do not believe that one can do that unless there is a variety of schools and teachers. If one could achieve that, then one could do something for this country.

Having luncheon at home alone just before I came here, I turned on the radio at one o'clock, I heard a gloomy mathematical gentleman saying that he was horribly depressed by the children who are leaving school today and who do not understand the decimal system. They cannot add up ordinary figures. He asked what good they would be—especially the girls—if they went into stores or shops, or whatever. One always hears the bad news. That is something that always comes through in the newspapers and on the wireless. It may well be that this is not true; but I have heard lots of criticisms of the schools today and of children who are not proficient in the three Rs. That is not just the fault of the children, it is the fault of the system; we ought to have as much variety as we can. That is why I disagree with the noble Lord opposite and with his Party. They are not prepared to face the responsibility, the difficulties and the need for variety in education.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I must first declare an interest in this debate in that I am chairman of the governors of a comprehensive school. I listened with very much interest to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and I agree with him that local residents' views should certainly be given very serious consideration in the education field. In my experience, this happens. Most of the schools with which I have been associated have had active parent/teacher associations, the members of which not only meet together but hold public meetings and keep in close touch with other parents and the staff, and they are also represented on the school governors' committee. I think that one should bear them in mind, and noble Lords may perhaps agree with me that they should be consulted if and when changes take place—


Here, here!


I think the main problem in the comprehensive school is to provide for a very wide ability range and to ensure that the intelligence of all young people will be extended to its maximum, whether it is merely average intelligence or intelligence of a very high degree. As a former WEA tutor, I know that a great many adults of high intelligence, certainly in the past, have left school without any qualifications whatever.

It was reassuring to hear from my noble friend Lady Gaitskell that in 1972 the percentage of school-leavers with a CSE or GCE certificate was 56 per cent. and in 1976 it was 82 per cent. In view of the many problems schools have had to cope with during the last few years, particularly with regard to immigrants, language difficulties and so on, that result is really a remarkable one. It suggests that in the near future the figure may well be not 83 per cent. but 90 per cent.

However, there is the question: Should children of high intelligence be educated with those of less intelligence? I am quite sure that they should, for the very good reason that there is no really accurate way of guaging the intelligence of human beings. I recall many years ago giving a test in an official capacity to a young man who hoped to become a pilot. I was asked to give him Cyril Burt tests and I put one question to him—I forget what it was—and he gave two incorrect answers. I said to him: "What would you do next?" He said:" I'd lie down and go to sleep." I think that summed up the meaning of those tests from his point of view, and if that is your feeling about them you were unlikely to do very well. I think that happens only too often. However, if you could provide young people, or even older people, with a really convincing reason for doing well in tests and persuade them that it will really help them in some way in which they want to be helped, the results would be very much better. So I would not myself want to rely on intelligence tests to decide whether pupils should go to this school or to that one.

One of the biggest problems that we have to cope with today in the comprehensive school field is the size of the school.

However small it may be—and by the standards of a comprehensive school 400 pupils would be regarded as "small" —you do need to cover the whole educational range. You need to have science laboratories, art rooms, assembly halls, and so on; and it is vastly expensive to provide all that young people require in a small school. For that reason, I am afraid that some schools are too large. I hope there will be a very considerable reduction in the size of schools in the years to come and I also hope most sincerely that if there is a change of Government—and may I say that I do not anticipate one—our comprehensive school policy will continue.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I would agree very much that it is a pity we cannot have a full day's debate on this very important topic. It would be counter-productive to try to unscramble legislation which has gone democratically through Parliament, and yet at the same time we have to face facts as they are and try to see in proper perspective what has been happening and what is likely to happen in the education system.

It so happens that, like my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to whose opening speech we all listened with interest, I have some experience of schools in Surrey. My two daughters went to one of the City of London schools in Surrey and later to a famous grammar school in Epsom. That particular school is now in the process of going comprehensive. I did not have time before this debate to consult the school, but in fact there are in Epsom two outstanding secondary modern schools, one for girls and one for boys, which inter-link quite considerably. I have been in very close contact with those schools and their activities since the late 1950s.

My elder daughter is now at a teacher training college in Nottingham—I believe it is now called the Trent Polytechnic. Be that as it may, she is now doing her final year for her diploma, which we naturally hope she will get, and she has had fairly considerable experience of teaching during her practice in a comprehensive school of 1,800 pupils in the city. She has made no secret of the fact that she has enjoyed it and has found it stimulating; but she takes the view, as many do, that there is room for the comprehensive school and the secondary modern school to work side by side, at least in a number of areas. What she will eventually do when she qualifies completely remains to be seen. Obviously she will face the same difficulties as do many contemporaries in teacher training colleges because of the present shortage of vacancies.

The people most involved here are the parents, the teachers and the pupils, but it is of course very much dependent on the relationship between parents and teachers as to how pupils will work out in the last analysis, whether they are at a private school, a secondary modern, a comprehensive or whatever you like. I certainly think that the most important thing is for the parents and teachers to be able to consult properly, and particularly in the case of a child who has difficulty in a certain subject which is vitally important. Given reasonable notice, obviously, and an appointment, it is important that the parents and teachers concerned should be able to meet and discuss in a practical, calm and collected manner what is best for the child. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Stewart, put her finger very firmly on the problem of the size of school. I do not think that that necessarily goes only for comprehensive schools either, although I believe that, with some of the split siting and so on, this problem may well apply more to comprehensive schools.

It so happens that some years ago one of the headmistresses at the girls' school in Epsom which I mentioned a moment ago, went to America at Government expense with six other headmistresses, to study the American system of education. She went out full of the joys of comprehensive education, but she came back very disillusioned with that method. There is not time in the course of this short debate to go into the reasons for this, nor would I necessarily wish it to be a drum with which to bang the comprehensive school system. But the real worry is that, with the vast size of some of the schools and the lack of planning which, due to hurried legislation, has gone into this subject, there could well be a long period of time before we see the easy communication between teacher and pupil, and teacher and parent, which is necessary.

It is always difficult to try to decide on the optimum size of a school, because this must obviously depend on the area in which people live and on the needs of local people. At present, we have a number of expanding new towns, and I wonder whether, if he has time in the course of this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, can say something about places such as Dawley, Milton Keynes and other areas which will clearly expand. Clearly, there will be a large number of children in these places, so what provisions are being made for both children and teachers in towns of that kind, to which people will move out from places such as Peterborough? I name just one example, but in the context of this debate it is an important one.

This being a short debate, I conclude by saying this. Clearly, the Government have made up their minds on this legislation, and what a future Government do is not the subject of this debate. But what must never be forgotten is that the high standards of education which this country enjoys must be preserved, and anything which causes them to deteriorate will fall on the heads of any Government involved.

4.35 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for moving this Motion today. I am eighth on the list and everything that I intended to say has already been said. Nevertheless, I say to the Minister that I propose to repeat it, on the basis that if you speak long enough, hard enough and strong enough it may percolate one day.

A state of transition is always difficult. It will take a long time for the comprehensive schools to build up the tradition and stability achieved over a long period by a number of modern secondary schools—perhaps, not all—by grammar schools, by direct grant schools and by schools with a long history in the private sector. Already, some comprehensive schools which have been in existence for some time are well on the way to establishing an acceptable identity within their community, although even now, as has been said by other noble Lords, the schools are still too big and create difficulties for both teachers and pupils.

I should like to touch briefly on a very real dilemma. Education departments, on the one hand, are seeking to establish the comprehensive school system in the area of their authority, which involves a managerial exercise carried out by administrators working under the education officer. To achieve this means a certain amount of imposed organisation. On the other hand, there are the parents wanting to meet the needs of their children, and also wanting responsibility for deciding which school their child should attend. The rub comes when what the parents want for their children does not accord with the local authority's plan of schools in the area of their authority, and the parents cannot afford to send their children to an independent school. In these circumstances, I wholeheartedly support the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, in his suggestion that there must be a period of very real flexibility.

May I mention the matter of the gifted child with a particular aptitude? I know of one case of a boy who is brilliant at maths, whose mother went to her local school to which she had been told to go by her local authority. She asked for a list of the teachers and their qualifications, but there was no one on the staff qualified to teach maths. When she asked whether she could send her child to another comprehensive school in a not very big town, she was told that she could not. This mother is a person of ability and resource, so she applied for a grant from a voluntary organisation. They would give her only 50 per cent. of the fees, so she then applied for a post herself which means working overtime on two evenings a week and one week-end in four. But this means that she cannot provide all the care she would like for this boy and her other children.

I know that the Minister of Education in another place has called on local authorities to allow parents an element of choice, but, as has been said by other noble Lords, this has to some extent been contradicted by experience. In fairness to the comprehensive schools, I should say that I have been in touch with the National Association for Gifted Children and that, although they tell me many parents are still asking for advice about a school for their gifted children, they consider that the standards in the comprehensive schools are rising and that there is an appreciation of the needs of the gifted child.

I would also touch on the children who, under the Education Act 1944, cannot, and should not, be deemed maladjusted, but who need a particular type of what I might call social education, where the home circumstances are such that the children need special care. I refer to the child whose parents are separated, the child who is of a nervous disposition and the child who has, living at home, one parent who is mentally handicapped or ill. These children often need a small school providing an environment of a size which they can tolerate. When faced with a large comprehensive school, they retreat into themselves and do not mature or develop emotionally, nor do they always benefit educationally. For such children, surely there must be an element of choice.

Then there is the area of family responsibility. It is often said these days that families expect everybody and everything to be at their disposal and to have things done for them. Are we to blame? Do we take from parents their parental rights and responsibilities? If we do, can we blame them if, later on in life, they expect the State to care for them? We have sown these seeds in the early life of the child.

There is also the question of loyalty. This is a quality—dare I say it?—which is at a low premium these days; or perhaps I should say that there are difficulties because there are divided loyalties. A child needs to feel that his parents and his school are working together. If parents are forced to send their children to schools which, reasonably or unreasonably, they are not in tune with, it is certain that those parents will find it hard to inculcate in their children a sense of co-operation and loyalty to the school to which their children have been forced to go.

Turning to the second part of the Motion, I support the principle of meeting the wishes of local residents in the reorganisation of secondary education in their areas. I agree with the principle, but I cannot see how it can be done in practice. As the law now stands, the comprehensive principle must be applied. I feel that I must say this, because I am quite sure that before the Minister finishes his speech he will use the words "comprehensive principle".


My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right.


My Lords, if parents do not agree with the comprehensive principle, all they can do is to raise money to allow their local grammar schools or direct grant schools to continue as grammar schools and direct grant schools. This is exactly what those schools have done. Many of the old, established grammar schools—Bradford Grammar School for one—continue to function outside the State system and, therefore, outside the comprehensive principle. May I suggest that the continuation of these schools outside the State system will result in far greater division in education. My only wish is that some of the recommendations which were made years ago in the Fleming Report could have been implemented, whereby direct grant schools could have been brought into the State system and grammar schools would not have been lost to the State. It seems that the present law is making for greater division in education rather than a comprehensive State system which allows for choice and meets the varying and diverse educational and emotional needs of children.

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad of this opportunity to support my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter on this very important and difficult subject. I was vice-chairman of the West Sussex County Council Education Committee for six years and I know how difficult it is to put parental choice into effect. However, the fact that it is difficult is no reason for not trying. May I take up two points which have been made by previous speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, said that we should go not back but forward. I agree with the noble Lord. The noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, said that we need variety, and I could not agree with her more.

To illustrate what I want to say, may I reminisce for a few minutes about my own educational background. My parents had free choice, and the result was indeed variety. From the age of six to the age of nine I attended classes in Sweden and had an Italian governess. From the age of nine to the age of 12 I went to the German High School for Girls in Hamburg, I was given the worst mark in the school called the Haaken, of which I am still very proud because I refused to sing "Deutschland fiber Alles" at the morning assembly. Then I went to the Lycée Molière in Paris and subsequently to an educational pension in Switzerland.

At that stage my father, who wished me to go to university, decided that I must come to school in England in order to pass my university entrance. I had learned a little arithmetic according to the metric system, so when I reached my English school I had to start all over again. It speaks highly for the teachers in that school that within a year I had got through my arithmetic and algebra for the Oxford entrance. I am sorry that such teachers are not to be found everywhere; if they were, we should not be having the trouble that we are having now. The importance of the education that I had was that it taught me languages. By the time I was 12, I spoke Italian, French and German as I spoke English. I believe that languages should be an important part of the education given in our schools.

That brings me to another point. Now that we belong to the EEC, I believe that we ought to take the question of languages very seriously indeed, and that parents should have not only the choice of schools in this country but the choice of schools abroad by means of exchanges, with European children coming to attend schools in England. Only by educating the younger generation shall we really become Europeans. Such exchanges will add to the variety that children need in their education. I am very sympathetic towards the 15 and the 16 year-olds who have been in the same school for the last five or six years and who are fed up. They need change. This would be one way in which to ensure variety for them. I do not believe that we can attach too high a value to it.

We do not want mass production. We do want variety, and with imagination that variety can be provided. However, if we are absolutely hide-bound by the comprehensive principle we shall fail to do what is so important in education. Again I owe a great deal to my parents, because they taught me to use my eyes. I was sent to a studio to learn to draw and to paint. They taught me to use my ears. I was brought up to hear a great deal of music. I was taught to use my legs, and for two winters I trained with the Russian ballet. Finally, one must be taught to use one's hands. They represent the most wonderful instrument ever given to man. Every child should be able to use his or her hands in a particular way. In my case, I concentrated on painting. Those are various ideas which have occurred to me and which I believe are relevant to this debate. I hope that in his reply the Minister will pay particular attention to the question of languages and school exchanges.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, as I am the last Back-Bencher to speak in this short debate I must confine myself to a few remarks, with my eyes on the clock. The debate is on parental choice and I shall try to confine my remarks to that subject. If there has ever been one fallacy which is greater than others it is that all children or, for that matter, all human beings are exactly alike, or should be exactly alike. Every human being and every child is an individual, and who should know that better than the child's parents? It seems to me that the element of parental choice as to the type of education a child child should have is essential.

I am not against comprehensive schools; I am not even against the comprehensive principle. As the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, has said, certain comprehensive schools are excellent. The great mistake which has been made in the case of many of these schools relates to the implementation of that principle. Some of the comprehensive schools are much too large, with overfull classes. Having been a schoolmaster myself, I know what that means. But comprehensive schools do not supply everything. There is no doubt that other types of school would give to parents a much greater chance to send their child to a school that would develop the child's character to the utmost.

For instance, a child may have some particular talent. He may be very musical; he naturally wants to go to a school where music is very strong, where there is an extremely good musical standard. Or he may have a great sense of public life. He ought to go to a school where public service and that kind of thing is accentuated. He will not, on the whole, find those specialisations in schools as general and as large as comprehensive schools. After all, why is selection such a bad thing? It seems to have become a dirty word with the Government at the moment; but, after all, we exercise it in all sorts of other ways in public life. I cannot imagine that the Prime Minister in appointing his Cabinet avoids any form of selection whatever.


My Lords, it looks rather like it.


Well, my Lords, I will leave that to the noble Lord who is to reply. Naturally, in all sorts of specialist activities one is selected for one's ability. I cannot see that there is any inherent wrong in selection.

Another point, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, was the fact that the educational system as we have known it has been riddled with the class principle, class privilege. Nothing is more untrue. Even 20 years ago class privilege had completely disappeared. I taught at a public school, but there was certainly no distinction about class there.

I think that the comprehensive-principle school—in other words, the type of school that achieves what comprehensives were meant to achieve most satisfactorily—is the direct grant school. I know a certain amount about direct grant schools as my wife has taught in them for most of her life. There you have a school which gives a very high standard of education. It is small enough to allow for good specialisation in certain branches, and it gives to children of very humble origin the chance to have the same. I think that the Government in abolishing the direct grant schools were really fighting against their own interests. It is the greatest tragedy in the world for our educational system that they have done away with these schools, which had an excellent educational standard. My Lords, I shall not speak for too long since others have said practically everything I wanted to say. But I do re-emphasise that it is no use trying to pretend that all children are precisely the same, because they are not, and nothing that any Government devise will ever make them so.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate. It has been distinguished by five speeches from noble Baronesses which is a very high proportion of the total, and three of them, I am glad to say, were the only support I got during the afternoon, except from the Liberal Benches. The noble Lord who opened this debate is a very experienced and skilled Parliamentarian. He was in fact made a Privy Councillor 13 years before I became a politician, so I do not expect to refute him as well as I would if we were speaking from equal experience. He exercised the skill of a Parliamentarian in making his speech sound extremely moderate, and also in saying that he was going to deal only with one small aspect of the whole subject. But, as I suspected, in the end we find ourselves—and I think every speaker has, in a way it is inevitable—re-running the 1976 Act which we spent nine days debating in this House, I am amazed to discover that I myself made nearly fifty speeches in the course of our discussions. The House will be glad that this afternoon I am going to make only one, and that, by the constraints of our experience, cannot be very long, so that is all right as far as it goes.

My Lords, the basic point here is that nobody on the Labour side wanted to damage any schools. The Labour position was that the comprehensive principle, which the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said I should refer to, could only be established if certain changes were made. Anybody who has been round comprehensive schools—and I have been round quite a lot and talked to the people in the area—will know very well that not one of those teachers, not one of those headmasters, think they can run the best sort of comprehensive school, dealing with all the abilities of the children presented to them, if the best are creamed off. That is the issue. That is why it is impossible to discuss just parental choice or just this or just that. There would be no difference between us if we thought others could do what we are trying to do without inflicting changes on the old tripartite system.

I should like to make a quotation here: Our educational system is now principally a comprehensive one and is likely to remain so in the future … Our aim must be to reform and mould the system of comprehensive schools in a way that will reproduce the best of the grammar school tradition in this new setting … Comprehensive schools are here to stay. We must take the new organisation, improve it where necessary, but above all we must make it work". These are not my words. They are taken from a booklet Better Schools for all written by the honourable gentleman Mr. St. John-Stevas and published just before Christmas. Their realism and moderation are something which I find very helpful and in modest contrast with some, though not all, of the things we have heard today. Mr. St. John-Stevas went further. He also wrote: There is no question of our seeking a return to the tripartite system … The problem … is not how to unscramble comprehensive reorganisation already carried out. It is how to ensure that comprehensive schools really do work for the bright, average and below average child". And he summed up his approach, with a touch of characteristic effrontery, by claiming that: the Tory Party, with its practical and reforming approach to education, is the comprehensive school's best friend". My Lords, I appreciate that. I speak quite seriously in appreciation of what he said, and I think it is in opposition to one of the things the noble Lord said when we had an exchange. I will not follow that up. I do not believe myself that the Tory Party, in the unexpected event of its winning the next Election, would really start pulling things down. I give them credit for better than that.


My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to intervene? In order to be comprehensive in his summary of Mr. St. John-Stevas's views, would he also add that the same honourable gentleman has indicated the intention of a Conservative Government, when it comes, to restore the direct grant schools?


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has already added it, so I do not think I need say it. If he tells me that that is the case, then I entirely believe him.

We believe, as Mr. St. John-Stevas does, in the potentialities of the comprehensive system. We believe it is capable of giving the best possible education to the whole range of children, and is in many cases already doing so. But we do not believe that it can do this if the brightest children are creamed off and educated elsewhere; and that is why we are well on the way to abolishing selection at 11-plus, which action I think nearly everyone today believes to have been right, even though the noble Lord, Lord Somers, does not. I think that few people on either side of the House want to go back to selection at 11-plus.

We must look ahead and to the future. There has been a tendency to concentrate on the privileged minority of pupils and to neglect the equally important interests of the 80 per cent. who used to attend secondary schools. The loss of parental choice which we have been discussing today applies only to the 20 per cent. who were attending direct grant or grammar schools. We have long believed that for the talents of all pupils to be developed to the full a non-selective pattern of secondary provision was required.

It is now 13 years since my old and much missed friend, Tony Crosland, set out in Circular 10/65 the policy, and it is nearly 18 months since the comprehensive principle was embodied in legislation. If we look realistically at the question of opportunities for parental choice we can make no mistake about it—the tripartite system offered 80 per cent. of the parents virtually no choice at all. Selection, at the age of 11, attempted to determine each child's educational needs at too early an age and involved a restriction of opportunity and reduced expectations of the large majority of children who were not allocated to grammar or other selective schools. There was very little option as to the school attended and the possibility of transfer at later ages was minimal.

It really is absurd to suggest that the introduction of comprehensive education has reduced choice in terms of educational opportunities. There is no question of academic education not being available within the comprehensive system. Indeed, in many areas, choice has been enhanced because children are now eligible to enter a range of schools, regardless of their ability or aptitude.

The claim of freedom of choice offered by direct grant grammar schools in any case is frankly spurious. Such schools were by no means spread evenly over the country so that accessibility to places was more a matter of geographical fortune than universal fairness. That, to some extent, is always true of all groups of schools. Indeed, there is a sense in which it is true of the comprehensive schools too. The direct grant and grammar schools offered no freedom of choice to children who failed the 11-plus; nor did the schools significantly improve the opportunities for working class children to obtain a good education, as is sometimes claimed. In fact it was usual to find a very heavy weighting of children of professional and managerial parents and very few children of unskilled workers, even among the places taken up and paid for by local authorities.

There was a very full debate in the other place on the direct grant grammar schools shortly after the regulations to phase out direct grant were introduced by the Government, and I do not propose to go over the ground in detail today. We made perfectly clear in our Manifesto for the last Election our commitment to ending the system of direct grant and grammar schools. The divisiveness and unequal educational opportunity which the system envisaged was actually subsidised from public funds and was particularly objectionable. In return for opting out of the maintained system, parents—even those with high incomes—were rewarded with a reduction of fees, which were in any case subsidised by a capitation grant averaging £100 per annum per student. Of the 170 direct grant schools concerned, over 50 have now come or are coming into the maintained system as comprehensive schools—many of them are Catholic schools—and the remaining two-thirds have mostly opted for independence.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, had some legitimate fun over my Secretary of State creating more private schools than anyone else.


My Lords, since Edward VI.


My Lords, I did not catch what the noble Lord said.


My Lords, to be fair, my historical recollection is that that is the situation only since Edward VI. He, proportionately to the size of the national economy at the time, was probably on an equality with the noble Lord's right honourable friend.


My Lords, the point is that it is a perfectly legitimate Parliamentary point to make. However, it has no meaning. Essentially the question was: Were we going to behave in a dictatorial way or were we going to leave as much freedom as we could, having made the changes we thought were necessary? The Secretary of State agreed that if people did not want to accept what we thought was right they would not be bludgeoned into it. The only point was that the State would not pay for them to do something different. They were left absolutely free to become independent. We were criticised for that by the other side, but I think it was absolutely right to do so. I am not the least ashamed of the creative abilities of my Secretary of State.

I believe that with the changes we have made we have widened the range for the vast majority of our children. May I remind the House yet again that in many areas the transition has been effected in an orderly way regardless of whether a Labour or Conservative Council has been in power. Comprehensive education is the normal pattern of secondary provision for over four-fifths of pupils in England and comprehensive schools represent three-quarters of the educational establishments in this country and are to be found in all but one local education authority—and the noble Lord knows very well which one that is! At present, over 3 million children out of a total of under 4 million are in comprehensive schools.

May I also remind the House that the Government's policy is not, and never has been, outright opposition to the grammar schools as such, but to the selective system. Like the honourable gentleman, Mr. St. John-Stevas, we believe that the traditions and experience of the grammar schools need not be lost but can be preserved in the comprehensive system, and in a certain number of cases certainly are being preserved. I would stress that because some good schools have changed their character, it does not mean that their fine traditions and academic standards have been lost in the comprehensive schools that have succeeded them. Reorganisation presents a greater challenge to all concerned to provide adequately for the full range of ability.

Having made clear, I hope, that far from apologising for the Government's achievements in this major development of national education, I am extremely proud of them, let me go on to describe some of the difficulties which are, of course, real enough. I have listed a number, but I shall not be able to list them all. I think the whole question of education bristles with problems, and will continue to do so whatever system we adopt. After all, we are dealing with nearly 4 million children and their parents, and though they are all made in God's image they present it in varying ways. There will always be complaints, and some at least of them will be justified. We are satisfied that we are on the right road, but the difficulties are obvious and must not be brushed under the carpet. I should like to look at one or two of them. However, before doing so I should like to make one or two comments on what has been said during the debate.

I have already said that I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Somers, about selection, and I certainly do not agree that there has ever been the faintest suggestion in Labour Party policy that all children were, should be or could be, equal. So I differ from the noble Lord on both those points.

I was fascinated by the achievements of the noble Baroness, Lady Emmet of Amberley, particularly in shouting down her German colleagues. I hope that it will not be necessary for her to do the same to us. However, over the question of languages and the exchange of children, I think that both suggestions are interesting. The Secretary of State has already spoken about the importance of languages in comprehensive schools where they are more fully dealt with than they normally have been in the other schools, and the exchange of children is a most interesting idea which I shall discuss with her.

The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, quoted a case of a mathematician which I found it extremely difficult not to feel bad about and I shall look at it. It seems to me to be just the sort of thing that should not be happening and I think that there were probably local problems. I am glad that she admitted that the standards for gifted children are rising, because this is an important matter.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Stewart of Alvechurch, and Lady Elliot of Harwood, both spoke about parent-teacher associations. My noble friend said that we already have these and in a very large number of schools they are working very well. From listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, I had the impression that very little was being done anywhere about this, although I do not think she meant it. I think that a great deal is being done. A large number of comprehensive schools are run in the most friendly way in conjunction with the parents and with every attempt being made to meet the parents' wishes.

My noble friend Lady Gaitskell refuted, I thought effectively, the suggestion that, as opposed to the old system, standards were falling in comprehensive schools. I do not think that one should make too much of statistics, but it is perfectly clear that we cannot go round saying that standards are falling. I do not think it is true. Whether the opposite is true—which it may be—remains to be seen.

I have a long note on the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, raised about Woodbridge, but I shall not read it because time is running out; I shall write to the noble Lord about it. He also spoke for a major voice for parents and he asked about a Bill. A Bill for the next Session may, hopefully, be in the list. We shall perhaps have the opportunity to discuss it when it arises. I do not know what is funny about it. I am astonished that noble Lords should laugh at the possibility of an Education Bill in this House. It seems to me to be desirable in every way and I am unable to react in the way noble Lords apparently expect me to.

I found the positive thoughts of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, very helpful. I wish that we had had altogether more of them. If only we could stop fighting over the few remaining anomalies and get together to make this system work better, we could do a very great deal of good.

I think that I have time to deal quickly with the most important problem that has been discussed—it is the only one for which I shall have time; namely, the question of parental choice. It is perfectly obvious that from the point of view of any parent some say in where one's children go to school is absolutely fundamental. On the other hand, it is perfectly obvious that in any State-run education system—and this is a State-run education system—whether comprehensive or not, the local authorities who are responsible for giving and ultimately for paying for this education, must have some say in who goes where. There is absolutely no way of avoiding it.

The Secretary of State has made it clear that it is her intention to introduce legislation, which we have mentioned, on school admissions as soon as the Parliamentary timetable permits, and I have said this may be in the next Session. I think it would be helpful if I say something about the way we envisage parental preferences between schools being reflected within the comprehensive system, not least because this topic has attracted a good deal of attention recently. Every local education authority is faced every year with the need to allocate places in its schools to the new generation of pupils. Different authorities have developed different approaches to this problem. Some, for example, work on the basis of a group of primary schools feeding each secondary school; some work on the basis of nearness to the parents' home; some invite parents to express preferences among all the schools within the authority and then distinguish between these preferences on criteria, such as the proximity of home to school.

For the great majority of children their nearest school is the school which they will naturally attend and which their parents will wish them to attend, and most parents accept the places offered to them. However, a small minority are not satisfied, and of these something of the order of 1,000 a year complain to the Secretary of State. This must be seen in relation to some 700,000 children moving every year into secondary education. I think that 1,000 is a lot and is too many, but it is not a big proportion of the total. Some of these parents are so determined that they keep their children at home, sometimes for a school term or even considerably longer, rather than accept a place at any school other than their favoured one. Parents who do this are in breach of their statutory duty, but because of an anomaly in the law, which the new Bill will put right, they may in the end stand a better chance of achieving their wishes than other parents who are unwilling to act unlawfully or to disrupt their child's education in this way.

Another difficulty is that the effects of the fall in the birthrate, which began in the mid-1960s, are just beginning to be felt at the ages when pupils transfer to secondary schools. I agree with my noble friend Lady Gaitskell that in a sense this is an opportunity which I hope we shall be able to grasp; but it is an opportunity which depends, like so many other things, on money. Six months ago, when things were rather worse than they are now, my Secretary of State said that she would not lower the levels but she was unable at the moment to improve the ratios until the financial situation eased. I hope that we may see some changes of that kind before very long, though I cannot speak of that with any certainty.

Authorities will need to be able to run schools at less than their physical capacity so that they can plan rationally to make the most sensible and efficient use of their resources during this period of falling school rolls. This in itself may give rise to objections from parents and some parental complaints may indeed be inevitable. But we hope that authorities will consult the parents fully in reaching such decisions. I believe that most authorities do this. I do not say that the system never goes wrong; I do not say that some may not be a little dictatorial; but my impression is that most authorities take the very greatest trouble to do this. However, it is extremely difficult.

The Secretary of State also intends to include in her legislative proposals a more general provision on the expression of parental preference in school admissions procedures, to which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, referred. Wherever possible parents should have the right and the opportunity to express any preference they may have for one school rather than another, and local authorities should be obliged to take those parental preferences into account as far as is reasonably possible. This does not mean, however, that all local education authorities should adopt identical procedures. Clearly, there must be local variations to meet local circumstances, subject always to the comprehensive principle. Where an existing mechanism already gives parents the sort of opportunity I have described, and allows parents who are dissatisfied to have the decision reconsidered locally, there would be no need to change the existing procedures. What the Secretary of State's proposals would do is to extend to all parents the opportunities already available to many, and I am sure that this will be generally welcome.

I have time to deal with one more point; namely, the question of resources, the ever-present question of money. During our long debates on the Bill what worried me more than anything else was the suggestion that the change to a comprehensive system would be impossible in some cases because there simply was not enough money to do it properly. This has been referred to today. As I said at the time, there was already a total school building programme of over £100 million a year, and a further £25 million was being injected into it during that year for comprehensive development.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the House of Commons on 26th October last year a programme of construction work in 1978–79 to relieve unemployment in the construction industry. Authorities were informed that about £17 million will be available as a second special programme to assist comprehensive reorganisation. As well as helping authorities who are anxious to complete reorganisation, it is hoped that the allocation will assist others who are claiming that lack of building resources is making progress towards reorganisation more difficult to adopt a more constructive approach. An announcement of the allocation will be made shortly.

I have answered one of the noble Lord's questions. I think he also asked me in his Motion whether the Government were intending any changes in the procedure. The answer is, No, they are not; but it is not the case that 1979 is a year based on electoral prospects. That year is a year to be seen in contrast with 1982, which was the year proposed by the council in question. I want to refute that suggestion. This is not a game. May I end by saying that in the course of my going about the country I have seen a fair number of comprehensive schools and I have been deeply impressed by the dedication of the staff, by their enthusiastic belief that they are working on the right lines, and by their absolute acceptance of the impossibility of running a really good comprehensive system without the changes we have had to make. I know we are under the shadow of an Election and there are deep differences between us, but I ask that we should accept, as Mr. St. John-Stevas has, that the system is potentially good and has come to stay, and that it is our duty to work together for its improvement.

5.21 p.m.


My Lords, in the two minutes that remain before I ask the inevitable leave to withdraw the Motion, I want to do only two things: first to say that the noble Lord's agreeable manner concealed somewhat the fact that apparently the Government still under, as he put it, the shadow of an Election, are proposing to insist on a very early change to a full comprehensive system in areas where such a change is against the wishes of parents, electors, and the local authorities concerned. He gave no justification for that arbitrary action. He said in another context that he did not want to be dictatorial. I would ask him to reflect whether anything could be more dictatorial than that.

Secondly, he said that he was not ashamed that two-thirds of the direct grant schools had gone independent. With respect, I think he ought to be ashamed, if he reflects on the number of children from humble homes who had every chance and expectation of going to these splendid schools until this Government intervened to deprive them of that chance. The Motion is formally for Papers. If it were in another form I would not seek to withdraw it. However, I recall when the late Lord Woolton was Leader of the House, and not being very interested in the procedure, he once accepted a Motion for Papers for the Government and the consequent dislocation in Whitehall of the attempt to discover Papers that could be provided for the noble Lord who raised the Question imprinted itself deeply in my memory. The Government are in sufficient mess already for me not to want to add even this modest addition to their troubles. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.


My Lords, the Government are very grateful.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.